California’s wildfire warning and the action we need to take

Four actions to prioritize wildfire mitigation and create healthy forests in California

By Ashley Conrad-Saydah and Hugh Safford

Special to The Examiner

When weather patterns and conditions develop that fuel extreme fire behavior, the National Weather Service issues what it calls a “Red Flag Warning.” In response, firefighters rapidly shift resources, beef up staffing and alert nearby communities. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment to prepare for the worst — one we’ve become increasingly familiar with, even in winter months.

Coming off yet another record wildfire year and what he’s called a “climate damn emergency,” Gov. Gavin Newsom this month issued the equivalent of a Red Flag Warning for California in 2022, proposing another $1.2 billion in forest health and fire protection initiatives.

This record investment covers everything from forest thinning and prescribed burns to new technology, reforestation and firefighting equipment. It comes as the federal government announced a plan last week to direct $50 billion into complementary efforts across the West.

We welcome this injection of funds. Having collectively spent more than three decades tackling some of government’s most intractable climate and forest management challenges, we know opportunities — and money — like this don’t come around often.

Now comes the hard part. What unfolds in the coming months will shape the health of our forests and communities for decades. We need to act with the urgency this crisis demands. That starts by prioritizing the following four actions:

First, empower coordination.

Newsom took a critical step last year by releasing the California Wildfire & Forest Resilience Action Plan, authored by a federal, state, local, non-governmental and tribal task force. This plan outlines in detail cross-sector actions to reduce wildfire risk, improve forest health and accelerate climate action.

Now we must quickly implement these solutions with strong, trusted and sustained partnerships and nimble, responsive task force leadership. This will ensure, for example, that fuel and resource management and climate adaptation investments are complementary, not conflicting or duplicative, and project outcomes are widely accessible.

Second, harness technology.

When Newsom unveiled his proposed budget, he highlighted California’s new Office of Wildfire Technology, noting that we’re “moving away from an old byzantine, bureaucratic framework that’s marked the past.” This commitment is a gigantic leap forward.

California is a state of innovators and it’s time to fund and deploy modern, accessible, science-based spatial tools that facilitate better planning and decision-making to restore forests and reduce the destructiveness of wildfires. With these tools and actionable information, decision-makers can monitor and measure progress and adapt and expand solutions. As we make these investments, we must also measure success based on completed — rather than planned — work.

Third, expand public-private and community partnerships.

While increasing government capacity, we need more private sector, community, tribal and academic partners. California’s Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program, which supports a number of existing partnerships, is well positioned to expand these initiatives.

Let’s also deploy Climate Action Corps, GrizzlyCorps and CivicSpark members and reinvigorate community college and university forestry programs to jumpstart these efforts — with a focus on incorporating missing perspectives, particularly in under-resourced areas. This work will also help ensure we’re addressing the needs of forest communities, including job training and placement, emergency planning resources and access to social programs.

Finally, get proactive.

It’s time to prioritize proactive investments responsive to our forest and fire management needs and capacity. We know that certain forest management actions — like prescribed fire and fuel reduction – produce understood benefits, and particular geographic regions demand significantly more fire restoration or prevention efforts.

Let’s leverage this knowledge to get funding to partners who can rapidly develop and deploy projects, including through newly-proposed post-fire reforestation grants. This means focusing on innovative solutions that bridge multiple programs and address acute community needs, not just “shovel-ready” projects, which are often older and not linked to climate adaptation or strategic planning. Let’s also shift to visually tracking on-the-ground progress with metrics linked to desired ecosystem and resilience outcomes, rather than just “acres treated.”

We often hear that government policies need time to work. Yet time is our scarcest resource. Over the past two years, six of California’s 10 largest fires on record burned resulting in billions of economic losses.

This is our Red Flag Warning, but with swift, smart action we can ensure we’re ready for what’s to come.

Ashley Conrad-Saydah is partnerships lead at Vibrant Planet, a public-benefit corporation. She was deputy secretary for Climate and Energy Policy at CalEPA. She now serves on the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Board. Hugh Safford is chief scientist at Vibrant Planet. He was regional ecologist for the USDA-Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. He leads the Safford Lab at UC Davis.

CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.

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